Tom Cruise has proven his stunt prowess (i.e., ridiculous foolhardiness) time and time again, most notably scaling the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and literally hanging onto a plane for the new Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. Yet while there are still some movies that take an old school approach to stunt work — we’re admiring you, Mad Max: Fury Road — most stunts these days are pulled off with wires and CGI enhancement. It makes sense — why risk someone’s neck for a shot in a movie? Even if it means we sometimes notice the movie magic at work.
Before the CGI revolution exploded during the late ‘90s, with the likes of The Matrix and Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, human beings literally risked their necks to keep us on the edge of our seats. Here are 10 old school stunts that were just plain crazy and required balls of steel, most of which will never be repeated in the same manner again.
SAFETY LAST! (1923)
Like fellow comic movie masters of his day, Harold Lloyd brought a strong sense of physicality into his work, and he really upped the ante with this stunt. He is literally hanging onto a giant clock arm with only eight fingers — he had lost two in a filming mishap in 1919. This sequence goes even farther as he scales a tall building to impress a lady and keeps hitting obstacles that require him to reach the roof. This remains one of the most iconic film images of the ‘20s. (Jackie Chan paid homage to it in his 1983 film Project A.)
STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. (1928)
Funny man Buster Keaton tried all sorts of crazy stunts throughout his career, and this one is the most famous. While he is caught in a storm, the façade of a house falls down around him, but he escapes unscathed because he is standing right underneath the open attic window. Keep in mind that he had mere inches of wiggle room, so if anything went wrong, he absolutely would have become a human pancake. It was a quick yet eternally memorable gag (that Jackie Chan replicated in 1987’s Project A Part II).
Forget John Wayne. The Duke of Stunts in Stagecoach is Yakima Canutt. Here, He jumps onto a group of horses pulling the stagecoach that our heroes are defending. While he gets gunned down fast, his body slowly falls to the ground, hanging from one of the horses, then slides between them and under the coach. No wires, no effects, just perfect timing.
Before Dom, Letty, and Brian tore up the blacktop fast and furiously, Steve McQueen got to carve up the streets of San Francisco. In the case of the propulsive chase scene in Bullitt, he did some of the work, although stuntmen Bud Ekins and (mostly) Loren James handled about 90 percent of it. This sequence is pure cinematic adrenaline; so much so that it seems like the camera crew is barely keeping up as the two cars roar up, down, and around the Bay Area. None of this is fudged, and there’s no bombastic score to accompany it. This classic chase is transfixing enough.
This lesser-known Australian flick was part of the Ozploitation movement of the ‘70s that gave us Road Games, Razorback, and Mad Max, whose hyperviolent melees Stone predates. At the start of the film, a mysterious assassin is bumping off bikers using a crossbow, bombs, a wire across the road and, in this case, driving a dude right off an 80-foot cliff. Bold stuntman Peter Armstrong went all the way with this, flying his bike off into the water of Lurline Bay below. He was reportedly knocked unconscious — let’s hope he was well compensated.
Gore master Lucio Fulci churned out some splendid video nasties in his day, including the seminal Zombie (a.k.a., Zombi 2 in Italy). The most provocative scene occurs when an undead man roaming the sea bottom, failing to feast on a half-nude scuba diver, turns to biting a nearby tiger shark. This was a low budget affair, and according to legend, the shark’s trainer played the living corpse, gave the swimming predator a tranquilizer, and performed in a controlled environment. Not that you can tell from this footage, nor that it matters since Siegfried & Roy proved that you can never accurately predict animal (or in this case, fish) behavior. Besides, IT’S A SHARK. Respect.
SHARKY’S MACHINE (1981)
This Burt Reynolds cop thriller is still fun to watch (thank you, Rachel Ward), and it features an intense finale where he guns down a mobster’s brother, sending him flying backwards through a plate glass window in a hotel. With this scene, famed stuntman and multiple record holder Dar Robinson earned the Guinness record for highest freefall movie stunt from a building (220 feet), and it’s obvious why no one would risk their neck doing this today. (Oddly enough, the filmmakers cut from the main shot to a dummy falling against a sunset backdrop to complete the scene.)
RAIDERS OF THE LAST ARK (1981)
One of the most famous Indiana Jones sequences ever finds our beleaguered hero (Harrison Ford) tossed through the window of a moving truck, then to avoid capture by Nazis in the car ahead, goes underneath the vehicle, using only his hands to slide along the undercarriage. The man who did this, Vic Armstrong, would only do the stunt if he could pick the driver. While you can see the trench dug to let him slide under the truck, it’s still pretty damn impressive.
POLICE STORY (1985)
Jackie Chan’s entire career is defined by sheer guts. There are so many wild moments to choose from, but one incredible albeit brief stunt takes place during a seven-minute mall chase. A crime lord has nabbed a briefcase full of incriminating information, and Chan finds himself a few stories above them. He takes the express route to them, sliding down a pole through a huge hanging light display, then crashing through a glass roof before continuing his hot pursuit. It looks awesome, but Chan suffered from burns, cuts, an injured back, a dislocated pelvis, and near electrocution and paralysis while pulling this off. That’s dedication. Or insanity. Or both.
Perhaps the most awe-inspiring stunt in a James Bond movie transpires at the start of Pierce Brosnan’s debut as 007. British stuntman Wayne Michaels jumps off of the Contra Dam in Ticino, Switzerland (which doubled as a Russian location) and plunges 720 foot. There is no trace of fear on his face, and the silent fall is breathtaking. Since the movie was released, over 10,000 adrenaline junkies have reportedly duplicated the jump.